Five years after his local recital debut here, Benjamin Grosvenor returned to the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society and cemented his status as one of the premier pianists of his generation. For that last outing, Grosvenor – who began as a child prodigy and has matured into a probing, individual artist – tossed off Berg’s Piano Sonata and played Gaspard de la Nuit as if Ravel has written it for him. His current appearance found him in no less treacherous waters, stacking his program with piece after piece that could fell a lesser musician on their technical demands. But even more than his virtuosity, which is in ample supply, Grosvenor’s artistry is notable for its style, wit and narrative focus that place him a level above many of his very able colleagues.

Benjamin Grosvenor
© Juan Diego Castillo

A listener could reasonably expect Schumann’s Kreisleriana, Ravel’s La Valse or Book 1 of Isaac Albéniz’ Iberia to anchor a concert on their own. To hear them all played with such distinction in the span of two hours was a feat of its own. But I came to appreciate the clarity that Grosvenor brought to such well-trod ground. Schumann embedded his own struggles with mental illness into his pianistic evocation of Hoffmann’s oddball conductor, with music that shifts frequently between bursts of ecstatic vigor and crepuscular passages of poetic longing. Even in the best hands, the piece can seem overlong and occasionally mawkish. Yet Grosvenor held attention rapt by crafting a sense of ever-hurtling dramatic tension, moving from assertive bass notes in the left hand to sustained lyricism in the slower sections. The interpretation realized the ultimate goal of Schumann’s counterpoint – to portray a mind in crisis.

If Kreisleriana was characterized by brawny tone and masterfully balanced dynamic shifts, Grosvenor’s journey to Spain emerged with the Impressionistic elegance for which his Ravel and Chopin are rightly celebrated. Still, neither the brightly colored Evocatión or the bustling El Puerto prepared me for the martinet-like precision he brought to El Corpus Christi en Sevilla that gradually floated into an introspective, almost prayerlike conclusion. The balance of exactitude and reflection returned in La Valse, where Grosvenor underlined the ways in which Ravel “Frenchified” his very Austro-German source of inspiration. In between, he offered an interpretation of Jeux d’eau that sounded more refined than your typical apprentice piece.

If you have the opportunity to catch Grosvenor live, be sure to ask for seats with a clear view of the keyboard. Despite his physical stillness on the bench, his hands come alive in a supremely animated manner. His long fingers extend, contort and dance – they resemble the shaggy-limbed figures in a Keith Haring cartoon. In the recital’s opening selection, Franck’s Prelude, Choral and Fugue, Grosvenor’s right foot became almost an extension of the sustaining pedal. And before his encore of Ginastera’s La Danza de la moza donosa, he removed his scarlet-red pocket square and humorously dabbed the keys, displaying only the slightest hint of a shy smile. There is no doubt that he is an artist who leaves blood on the stage.